Retro PEZ Talk: Len Pettyjohn
Retro PEZ Talk: Everyone has a story to tell, some more than others, but Len Pettyjohn can talk about the US stars of the 80s on a first hand basis. There has been many a top rider pass through his hands, from Greg Lemond, Alexi Grewal, Doug Shapiro, Davis Phinney and the ‘lost soul’ that was Michel Zanoli. A great read that will keep you gripped to the end.
A name which kept cropping up when we spoke to our 80’s ‘cult riders’ was that of a certain manager, Mr. Len Pettyjohn. We thought we best have a word and if you loved 80’s cycling please read on – you’ll thank me.
PEZ: Did you ever race, Len?
Len Pettyjohn: I did, but came to it late as an extension of riding a bike around the Wisconsin campus while doing graduate work in the 1960’s and 70’s. I was intrigued by all the fast kids on bikes around the campus and got hooked pretty quickly, even though I didn’t have time to race until I moved to Colorado in 1974. I started doing novice category races and within a couple of years moved up to Cat 2 levels where I frequently got schooled. Once I got to Masters level I was able to actually race vs hanging on. There was a very long break from racing, and even riding, while I was involved with teams and events, but came back to Masters races after I retired.
Len racing now
PEZ: How did you get into running teams?
What was a short racing hobby evolved quickly to a vocation as a college professor because I was able to create an organizational structure for our amateur team in Colorado. I sat through a year of meetings with our club and recognized there was a reason it was called amateur racing. All the team members wanted was discount bike stuff so they could get their own best result. I wrote up a proposal to the team that I would generate sponsorship support for the team if they granted me 100% control of the racing membership. Once I had that I started pitching sponsorship proposals to local Colorado companies for a regional cycling team. That was the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and the Red Zinger/Coors Classic was a bonanza for pitching deals to Colorado companies who saw firsthand the excitement and marketing around bike racing.
PEZ: Remind us of the teams you ran, please.
Initially they were Colorado companies with national affiliations. The Denver Spoke bicycle store was an inroad to all cycling products so I was able to get Pinarello, Campy, Pearl Izumi and all equipment fairly easily. Teams were Aspen Skiwear/Dia-Compe, American Savings, McDonalds, Lowery’s Meat Snacks, Ford Motor Company. Those local teams did well with a string of US National team members, Coors Classic wins (Dale Stetina, 1993), Olympians (Alexi Grewal 1984 Gold) and a very successful group of juniors who won World Championship medals in 1984 (Craig Schommer, David Brinton, Dave Farmer, Tony Palmer).
That built to national level sponsorships in the late 1980s with Lowenbrau, and then Crest Toothpaste (men’s amateur team that placed five Olympians in the 1988 Games); a major women’s team with Lowery’s (a number of national champions and a 1988 Olympian) and finally the Coors Light professional team from 1989-1994. During that same time period I was also organizing a number of bike races that landed on the National Calendar. They started with the Coors – Golden Stage Race in the 1970s, the Tour of Denver, Rocky Mountain Classic Stage Race, The USA National Championships, The Bannock Criterium and then later the Saturn Cycling Classic and finally the Mercury Tour, a major mountain bike stage race with the Outdoor Life Network.
Paul Koechli at Toshiba
PEZ: Is there any DS/coach you ever admired or had as a role model?
For admiration it was Paul Koechli in 1984 as I was very much the novice so I was watching everyone. With LeMond, Hinault, Bauer, Hampsten, et al La Vie Claire were the most visible. Paul was masterful in managing the race, the riders, and the huge promotion they created. I took a lot of notes.
The biggest impact, however, came from the early 80’s Eastern European/Soviet programs. Absolute control of the riders with a structure of teamwork that was masterful. I had no idea that a group could be so organized, efficient and effective in what I initially saw as chaos. It was a seminal event in my life to witness and copy many elements of a “company” ethic. The Russians and East Germans taught me about wind as a weapon and how a good team used their collective strength to destroy people. I then started watching for their subtler teamwork elements and how riders were selected for special roles.
PEZ: What are the qualities you rate highest in a professional bike rider?
Intelligence, mental focus and especially speed. Smart, tough, and fast. What more do you need?
From the very beginning I always looked for smart kids because I could trust them to listen and communicate. With that I had the means to teach and learn. I recognized very early that each rider could only see a portion of what was happening during a race so I made sure to meet with almost every rider after every race to ask what happened, what they saw, how they reacted and then I could get a pretty fair perspective of the race.
The next day or next event I could then sit down with the entire team and talk about how the race was won or lost and how we did as a team. Great feedback equals greater understanding so all of us were learning and developing. That process forced riders to pay attention and articulate what they did and more importantly, what they now saw during a race. Very quickly the guys were dialed into teamwork as they discussed what worked, what failed, and when to do it. They began to watch and create…they were no longer in a race, they were making the race. I think this is a bit of a lost art in modern racing as riders are not held accountable for their decisions as they often are waiting for a director to make a call.
Doug Shapiro (“just pay me and tell me what to do”) has a chat with Erik Heiden
PEZ: Who would you rate most professional among the riders you’ve worked with?
Whoa, that’s tough as “most professional” has multiple connotations. With that said virtually every rider I ever worked with came with a solid attitude of commitment and pride in what they were doing. They all came to my teams with a background of success or high potential so I was fortunate to work with so many reliable riders.
Doug Shapiro once told me, “Len, just pay me my salary and tell me what you want me to do”. I never forgot that and always used it when someone complained about a directive. Doug’s comment took me back to the Soviet programs where riders were told if they couldn’t do the work there were guys waiting in line for their position. Pros understand it’s a job and I always tried to make sure riders understood their role. It they did their job they got paid.
Davis Phinney was probably the most image conscious of what a pro projected. He was always perfect as a sponsor representative; always gracious around fans and sponsors, always dressed to perfection for team roles, and always on time. Ron Kiefel projected confidence and dependability on the bike and was always was there for 100% duty. The team sprinters always asked that Ron and Roy were included in any race they went to.
Roberto Gaggioli was the personification of Italian cycling culture. Everything about the bike and rider is aesthetic perfection. It started with his suitcase where every item of team wear was clean, folded, and wrapped in individual plastic bags. He never went to a race with a single thing missing and everything was organized so he could pull it out without looking. His room was always the neatest as well.
This is in contrast to lots of pros who could not see the floor within yards of their suitcase. David Farmer, a rider few will remember, was always one of my favorites as he was so reliable as a link to the team. He went out of his way to keep me informed about what the riders were thinking and feeling. A lot of pros may complain, but avoid confrontation with the director and Dave was able to be the bridge. Roy Knickman was also a close second in that regard.
The late Michel Zanoli
PEZ: Any riders who frustrated you – wasting talent?
Only one guy who was truly a lost soul – Michel Zanoli, a junior World Champion from Holland who wanted to escape the rising drug culture of the late 80’s in Europe. Amazing power and speed, but a flawed mentality that manifested itself in destructive behavior on and off the bike. He died of an overdose a few years ago after spending time in prison for car theft after he was kicked off every cycling team he rode for. My other frustration was occasionally with the new and younger riders as they were brought in for the future. My teams were always structured with a mix of older, highly successful riders, a core group of guys near their peak and a few new, young guns. The new guys were always a mix of eager and anxious so I used the core guys to mentor them, but I always had to watch them a lot.
The system was new and the structure was almost always overwhelming in the early part of their career. It was a tough transition for riders to move from the amateur to professional ranks and it was often a slow process of thinking in terms of racing as a job. As for true frustration it was drug related. There are guys who cheated to stay in the sport and who came to the team with that baggage. The sport has always had elements of PED’s and many of the European based guys were especially a concern. In the early days of Coors Light I had a few guys, who will not be named, that left on less than honorable conditions. We had a very strict program with Coors and Crest and I was often frustrated with the cultural attitude that was becoming pervasive in the 1990s. It finally drove me from the sport by the mid 1990s as it was clear that I could not organize and run a winning team unless I relaxed my aversion to a medically enhanced program.
PEZ: You worked with Alexi Grewal – quite a character.
I get a lot of credit for Alexi’s success, but people should understand that we became close for mutual benefit. In the early 1980s I had two teams – a group of super juniors that was an absolute joy to work with and develop those little guys, almost as a surrogate father, while they were developing into young men. Alexi at that time was barely out of the junior ranks and I saw his immense talent and frequently his incendiary behavior. I raced against his father for a few years and got to see the profound role his father had on Alexi’s personality (and his two younger brothers, Rishi and Ranjet).
His father was one of the most intense, hard driving people I’ve ever met and his treatment of his family was very difficult to witness. I felt I could provide Alexi direction and solace at times as he became the cornerstone for my developing amateur team. It was stressful for both of us, but I am clear that we both benefited and Alexi became one of the most talented and helpful leaders for my early teams. He was extremely good at reading a race and directing the younger guys on the team(s).
Olympic road champion Alexi Grewal riding Milan-Sanremo
His explosive behavior and bizarre habits often created friction within the team, but it gave me the opportunity to teach the riders that team work was their job. It was a good lesson that they may not enjoy someone socially, but good co-workers could create a dynamic and successful racing program. Alexi was physically fragile, but when he was rested and motivated he was a major force in his era. His explosive episodes were his liability and I often took the role of his foil to help him focus his strengths on the bike. Tedious at times, but it worked for both of us.
Greg Lemond wins the Tour de France in 1986
PEZ: And Greg LeMond.
When Greg came to the team in 1989 he was no longer the young gun. He was coming off a series of serious setbacks from being shot in 1987, injured in a nasty crash in 1988 and basically devalued by his PDM team. His agent was shopping him for a contract and facing low ball offers. This coincided with the Coors Brewing Company dropping the Coors Classic bike race, a program that had a long string of major promotional success. The Brewery was looking for a more national program vs an event that had a small geographic reach. A team could interface with hundreds of their distributors in new markets, but they wanted some assurance that they could garner media attention. As Greg was a former Tour winner and the only American to do so, I pitched Coors on the uniqueness of Greg’s world status and the fact that he was already a hero by winning the Coors Classic bike race.
I was very comfortable with the idea that Greg would come to the team super motivated after his treatment by PDM. In 1989 Greg came to the team out of shape, but was totally committed to getting back to Europe so we were able to do a joint sponsorship with a very small, shaky Belgian team, ADR, and share Greg’s racing schedule. His first appearance was in Miami as part of the Tour of Venezuela and the crowds were wild for him and the new neon colors of the Coors Light team.
His next race was the Tour de Trump and this was a media circus from day one. Greg’s riding was marginal, but the Coors execs were overwhelmed by the positive media attention they were generating in completely new (and large) beer markets. Greg has always been an emotional rider and when he is riding well it’s a powerful force. He was suffering through the ‘89 Giro until the last couple of days when everything came together during the final time trial. He came out of the Giro like the Greg of old when he was winning at the highest levels.
That Tour de France final in 1989
The ’89 Tour was an amazing experience to be part of one of the most thrilling finishes and one of the more dynamic races. It put Greg back at the top of the sport and set the stage for some of the equaling dramatic behind the scenes contract wrangling I’ve ever been part of. Coors had a two year contract with Greg and the ADR portion was falling apart with lack of payments to Greg. Essentially he was granted relief because of contract breach and Hein allowed him freedom to move to another team the last few days of the Tour. Teams began to court us very hard through the Tour as they were watching his performance.
ADR attempted to save their program by making up Greg’s salary and UCI bonus payments two days before the Tour ended. I drove the ADR team owner to Luxembourg where he picked up $400,000 in Belgian francs and we delivered it to Bob LeMond. Needless to say it did not save the ADR program as we were deep into working with more solid team options. The final days of the Tour and the week before the Worlds in Chambery, France were non-stop negotiation with potential teams offering daily increases in their offers. Greg was very concerned about three things – the dollar amount, duration (three year deal) and quality of the team. It finally came down to Z who satisfied all concerns with a $6 million dollar deal.
Coors Light would be the co-sponsor with their same very small sponsorship to Z. Coors had never done a contract for more than two years and would only agree to two years and a third year option. We stepped aside and Z took sole ownership of Greg’s contract for three years. Everyone was happy with the outcome as Greg returned to his status as the top rider in the world, and Coors was comfortable that their program was based on a top flight team back in the U.S. But they also felt that Greg was so big he would overshadow their role. Whenever Greg was present the headlines were about Greg. When he was not present the media focused on the Coors Light team. Sponsors need to get the headlines.
Len Pettyjohn getting the miles in
PEZ: What’s been the favorite phase of your career?
Two or three aspects come to mind. In the early years the juniors were a joy as they were nonstop excited to be racing and they were like a sponge. Every day they wanted more information and literally would sit at my feet before and after races to talk tactics, strategy, and how they could get more bike stuff. And girls. They wanted to know how to talk to girls. I was pretty good with the bike stuff, not so much the girls. A very fun time.
Second phase was the build up to the 1984 Olympics with Alexi and the team through the qualification races. It was clear that Eddy B. had his team and Alexi was only going to be there if he won the single open spot based on qualifying races. I was adamant that season that Alexi needed to work on his sprinting in every training race (not a popular idea). He won the final selection in a very close sprint. It was a total team effort with a single goal in mind for the season and Alexi pulled it off. I was then able to keep Alexi away from the grinding training camps and send him to LA the week before the Games with his massage therapist who totally kept him relaxed and focused on the day. Alexi met with the team before the race for a tactical meeting. The plan was to ride for Davis if it came to a group finish. My comment to Alexi was the U.S. should win, but if Davis was not there for the finish then he needed to make sure he was the guy. To pull that off on such a big stage was a major highlight.
Third was clearly the Greg LeMond saga and the ’89 Tour victory, but equally satisfying was creating and building the Coors Light team to the pinnacle of success for six years. The team had at least three seasons where they won between 120 and 130 plus races per year.
The great Peter Post
PEZ: Riders always say there was ‘no nonsense’ with you; is that you all the time – or are there ‘two Len Pettyjohns?’
Absolutely no nonsense. Bicycle racing is a performance driven endeavor with winning the ultimate goal. In professional racing it’s your job to win, but there is only one winner so the team goal is to support that guy who can win on any given day. As the director I made it very clear that everyone on the team was there because of some special qualities – sprinting, climbing, endurance, power, etc. Some riders won a lot because they were fast finishers from a group, others because they were strong enough to break away solo or in a small group and win, others who could win by virtue of the team riding such a hard tempo at times that we had superior numbers to win. In any case it took a coordinated team effort to set one another up for victory. Todd Gogulski coined one of my monikers that got a lot of play – Petty Post.
I took it as a compliment as the great Peter Post was the iron handed team director of one of the most dominate programs in Europe. Of course the riders were less then complimentary in their reference, but it did create a sense of understanding that I expected a lot from them. I think they also understood that I was setting a standard of excellence that they all accepted and took pride in delivering. The feedback from other teams was often envy, fear and respect. They knew that if they could win when Coors Light was present it was going to be a huge achievement.
The Coors Light team 1992
PEZ: When you look at BMC, Cannondale, Trek you must think ‘changed days’ from the 80s?
I look at this as an evolution as budgets have dramatically increased for cycling and this is most visible with team presence at events and in the media. Coors Light was the first American team with a completely integrated look for every team item that is now standard. We also had a very sophisticated PR and media presence for that time period. The mountain bike programs in the early 1990s with their World Cup venue presence created the first big impetus for the road teams to super-size their fleets and event footprint. The World Tour teams have expanded that and then brought in the ultra-spectacular buses in the last few years. Cycling now has taken on a truly big league existence.
PEZ: Of the current US and Euro crop, who do you rate?
I’m not close enough to the races to judge these days, but it looks like there are some very talented men and women coming through programs like the U.S.A. house in Europe and especially teams like Axel Merckx. It is a very difficult transition for the Americans because the style of racing is so different and so much harder then what they grow up with in the States. It’s crucial they get extended time in Europe to develop.
PEZ: And you’re coaching with Hunter Allen now – is ‘power’ the only way to train?
When Hunter and Andy Coogan wrote the seminal book on training with a power meter I was standing in line for the information. I was an early advocate for training with heart rate data and had seen one of the early versions of an SRM, but had no idea how to measure or use the data. Once a cyclist, even a casual rider, is introduced to the metrics available and possible structure they realize it’s a game changer. With a good coach, and there are now quite a few who have gone through the Hunter training program, riders see powerful results, to use a cliché. I wouldn’t say power is the only way to train, but it is the single most important tool we currently have for tracking, analyzing and developing rider performance.
PEZ: Anything you’d do differently with your career with benefit of 20/20 hindsight?
No. I don’t dwell on the past, so I am satisfied with my cycling career. There were many spectacular, shared moments when riders were realizing their greatest dreams. I feel blessed to have been closely linked with so many talented men and women.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.